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Forget limes and salt with tequila. Sangritas son muchas mas autenticas . . . y deliciosas.

June 05, 2005|David Lansing | David Lansing is a frequent contributor to the magazine's Style section.

Shimmering, seductive tequila is the current hip sip, thanks to our fascination with fusion Latin cuisine and the spirit's cool reputation with Gen-X drinkers who find vodka boring and single-malt whiskey passe. For those who take tequila seriously, knowing not only which tequila to drink but how to drink it is as important as knowing the difference between a reposado and an anejo.

So how do you drink a really good tequila? Straight up, slightly chilled if it's a plata, or silver tequila, with a back of freshly made sangrita. Good house-made sangrita ("little blood") has always been a bit of a holy grail--elusive, enigmatic and worthy of a quest. Unfortunately, only a handful of Los Angeles bars serve sangrita, and often it's a murky bottled version that tastes more like Bloody Mary mix than anything you'd get in Mexico. A few places in L.A., such as Spago, make it, but other than that, you had to search it out in Guadalajara or Mexico City.

Until the Venice Cantina opened earlier this year.

In a town where dozens of trendy bars feature $20 shots of tequila and $50 margaritas, the Venice Cantina--with its Tuesday night $2 tacos and tequila shooter specials--seems an unlikely star. Tucked into the ground floor of a blue building housing a youth hostel, it's not exactly a Latin version of the Sky Bar. But for anyone who savors the Mexican tradition of ending a busy day at his favorite local bar and ordering "Un completo, por favor," this is heaven.

But not for the food, though the fried talapia and traditional grilled corn slathered in cojita cheese and chili powder are as good as anything you'll find in Mexico. And not for the tequilas, which are numerous and backlighted by votive candles in wooden niches that, were this a church, would hold hand-carved santos. No, what makes the Venice Cantina worth searching out is Eddie Rojas' sangrita.

"Sangrita is to tequila what chile is to tacos," says Rojas, the Cantina's general manager and resident tequila sommelier, or tequilero. "Without it, it just doesn't taste right."

The problem, Rojas says, is that there are as many versions of sangrita as there are feast days in Mexico. In San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town in the central highlands where the most common citrus tree is the tart Seville orange (used for making Cointreau and marmalade), sangrita is usually sweetened with grenadine. In Chihuahua, you're likely to get a lime and tomato juice combo. And in tropical areas of Mexico, pineapple is often the predominant juice.

Many tequila authorities believe that sangrita should be made only with orange juice and chiles and not with tomato juice; others swear by Clamato juice. Rojas blended dozens of sangrita concoctions for years until he hit upon what he considers the ultimate sangrita recipe.

"It all comes down to this," Rojas says. "The key to a great sangrita is to make it with ingredients that enhance and bring out the hidden characteristics of a great tequila."

The wrong sangrita, he says, pouring a shot of his elixir the color of a Southern California sunset, can ruin a good tequila. He explains how some friends were drinking a very good Chinaco Blanco, exactly like the one he had just poured, with a sangrita made with too much tomato juice and too many chiles. "They didn't like the tequila. They thought it was harsh and rustic-tasting. But taste it with my sangrita and tell me what you think."

I take a sip of the Chinaco and immediately detect its citrus notes and a slight smokiness. Then I sip the chilled sangrita, and the tequila lingering in the back of my mouth now tastes of pear and perhaps dill, along with sparkling lime. How did that happen?

Rojas smiles slyly. "She brings it to life, does she not?"

"She" being the sangrita. And yes, "she" brought out hidden elements in the blue agave juice that I had not noticed the first time. But to smooth and brighten a young tequila such as Chinaco Blanco, which was bottled less than a month after distillation, is admirable if not terribly surprising. Could his sangrita do the same to a slightly aged reposado or, more difficult still, could it add anything to a complex anejo that had spent a good part of its existence acquiring depth and richness in oak barrels?

Rojas smiled and poured us shots of Gran Centenario Reposado, one of my favorite tequilas. The herbaciousness of the blue agave was immediately evident, as was the slightly vanilla aroma from the oak. But what was less apparent, until I sipped my sangrita, were the hints of apple and honey. I took another sip of the reposado to confirm my discovery, and there they were again, in the most subtle, evocative manner.

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